The Innovators: How a Group of Hackers, Geniuses, and Geeks Created the Digital Revolution

By Walter Isaacson (2014)

Most of the successful innovators and entrepreneurs in this book had one thing in common: they were product people. They cared about, and deeply understood, the engineering and design. They were not primarily marketers or salesmen or financial types; when such folks took over companies, it was often to the detriment of sustained innovation.

My Notes

Leadership styles and finding the right balance:

Many transformative innovators have been similarly stubborn about pushing a new idea, but Shockley crossed the line from being visionary to being hallucinatory, turning him into a case study in bad leadership. In his pursuit of the four-layer diode, he was secretive, rigid, authoritarian, and paranoid. He formed private teams and refused to share information…

Shockley may have been too driven and decisive, but Noyce, who was naturally congenial and accommodating, could have benefited from a dose of toughness. A key challenge for managers is how to strike a balance between being decisive and being collegial, and neither Shockley nor Noyce got the calibration precise.

💡 Complementary leaders with different styles:

Years later, after Grove had learned to appreciate this, he read Peter Drucker’s The Practice of Management, which described the ideal chief executive as an outside person, an inside person, and a person of action. Grove realized that instead of being embodied in one person, such traits could exist in a leadership team. That was the case at Intel, Grove said, and he made copies of the chapter for Noyce and Moore. Noyce was the outside guy, Moore the inside, and Grove was the man of action.

Throughout history the best leadership has come from teams that combined people with complementary styles.

Another key to fielding a great team is pairing visionaries, who can generate ideas, with operating managers, who can execute them.

A new management culture:

There arose at Intel an innovation that had almost as much of an impact on the digital age as any of these. It was the invention of a corporate culture and management style that was the antithesis of the hierarchical organization of East Coast companies.

The culture at Atari was a natural outgrowth of Bushnell’s personality. But it was not simply self-indulgent. It was based on a philosophy that drew from the hippie movement and would help define Silicon Valley. At its core were certain principles: authority should be questioned, hierarchies should be circumvented, nonconformity should be admired, and creativity should be nurtured. Unlike at East Coast corporations, there were no fixed working hours and no dress code, either for the office or the hot tub.

💡 “Discovering” the mouse:

Dozens of options for moving an on-screen cursor were being tried by researchers, including light pens, joysticks, trackballs, trackpads, tablets with styli, and even one that users were supposed to control with their knees. Engelbart and English tested each. “We timed how long it took each user to move the cursor to the object,” Engelbart said. Light pens seemed the simplest, for example, but they required a user to pick them up and put them down each time, which was tiresome. They made a chart of all the advantages and drawbacks of each device, which helped Engelbart imagine devices that hadn’t yet been conceived. “Just as the periodic table’s rules have led to the discovery of certain previously unknown elements, this grid ultimately defined the desirable characteristics of a device that didn’t yet exist,” he said.

Constructive conflict:

Taylor had another leadership skill that he had refined at his meetings with ARPA researchers and graduate students: he was able to provoke “creative abrasion,” in which a team of people can question each other, even try to eviscerate each other’s ideas, but then are expected to articulate the other side of the dispute.

Alan Kay ❤️

To advance his crusade for the Dynabook, Kay gathered around him a small team and crafted a mission that was romantic, aspirational, and vague. “I only hired people that got stars in their eyes when they heard about the notebook computer idea,” Kay recalled.

Cross-disciplinary teams:

The most productive teams were those that brought together people with a wide array of specialties.

Co-located team members:

There is something special, as evidenced at Bell Labs, about meetings in the flesh, which cannot be replicated digitally.

Computer history:

Steve Jobs built on the work of Alan Kay, who built on Doug Engelbart, who built on J. C. R. Licklider and Vannevar Bush.